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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The History of America's 'First Pet'

The primary season is in full swing, but we may have to wait for months before the question on everyone’s mind will be answered: Will a dog or cat occupy the White House? Could it be Seamus, Jet, Sonic, Sam, Coco, or Oreo?

The Humane Society Legislative Fund has asked the presidential candidates for their positions on important animal welfare policy issues. But we also want to find out who’s got what kind of animals, where they came from, and what they’re like. And when it comes to spaying and neutering, veterinary care, and related topics, the power of a president’s example as a responsible caregiver can be significant.

180pxbarney_oval_office Just about every president has had a pet of some kind, and since the Civil War especially, pets have been a fixture at the White House. Most presidents have been dog owners, and more than fifty dogs have occupied its hallowed hallways. Most of the early cats there were “barn hands,” with Abraham Lincoln the first president to bring one indoors.

Incumbent and aspiring presidential pets have tremendous symbolic impact during political campaigns. Warren G. Harding’s Airedale terrier, Laddie Boy, campaigned with him for office in 1920. He was the first animal known to stump actively on the campaign trail and to appear in campaign literature.

Some believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier, Fala, “swung” the election of 1944, after opponents made innuendoes to the effect that the president had sent a navy destroyer to the Aleutian Islands just to bring home his pet, accidentally left behind. FDR played the situation to his advantage in a speech: “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala.”

Fdr_fala Fala is perhaps the best known of all presidential pets—he followed FDR everywhere, becoming part of the president’s public image. The faithful dog is buried near FDR in Hyde Park, N.Y., and is enshrined by his side at the FDR Memorial, one of my favorite spots by the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Whenever I visit, I’m grateful to Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who pushed for Fala to be included at the memorial site.

Richard Nixon may have saved his political career in 1952 with his “Checkers” speech, given as he tried to defend himself against charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions. In it, he stated his refusal to return a cocker spaniel given to his family as a gift, stating “the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

In 1996, there was an amusing public debate moderated by John McLaughlin on the polarizing issue of whether a dog or a cat would make the best first pet. Leader Dole showed up to represent the dogs and Socks Clinton sent a statement on behalf of the cats. Cats defeated dogs by a 58% to 42% vote, with 15,000 humans voting.

With another vote looming, a number of the current candidates have pets, and here’s what we know so far: On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has Seamus, a Lab, who is great nephew to former First Dog Buddy. (Former First Cat Socks went to live with Clinton friend Betty Currie.) John Edwards has a Golden retriever and chocolate Lab, and Dennis Kucinich has three rescued shelter dogs: Harry the beagle-basset, Lucie the beagle, and George the cocker spaniel. Barack Obama does not currently have pets, but has promised his daughters they can get a dog when the campaign ends.

On the Republican side, John McCain has the most animals: Sam the English springer spaniel, Coco the mutt, turtles Cuff and Link, Oreo the black and white cat, a ferret, three parakeets, and thirteen saltwater fish. Mike Huckabee has Jet, a black Lab, and Sonic, a Shih Tzu.  Mitt Romney’s family recently lost Marley, a Weimaraner. And Rudy Giuliani does not currently have pets, but at Gracie Mansion he had adopted Goalie, who was bred to be a guide dog for the blind but had cataracts that prevented him from passing his exam.

Once the final votes are cast, we’ll know who’s going to be the First Dog or Cat.  We’re not picking any favorites yet, but it’s clear that White House pets will continue to fascinate Americans and help us celebrate the human-animal bond. With two-thirds of households now including pets—in red states and blue states—the First Family can truly bring the country together by sharing their home with animals.

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